Meeting an angel and being told you will be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah would be a very daunting and fearful event. Fear was a common reaction to this wonderful news, but the angelic messengers were always quick to reassure their charges to “Don’t be afraid”. This became one of the recurring themes in the life and teaching of Jesus.
Despite the risks inherent in incarnation, there is a significant and repeated pattern in the succession of announcements that preceded and accompanied the birth of Jesus. While the elderly priest Zechariah was fulfilling his duties in the temple, burning incense as part of the ritual of afternoon prayers, an angel appeared to him, introducing himself as Gabriel, a messenger who had come directly from the presence of God. “Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer’” (Luke 1:12, 13).
“But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer.’”
We don’t know the specific circumstances in which this same angel also appeared to Mary, but the tradition marked by the Basilica of the Annunciation—a relatively contemporary and beautiful church in Nazareth today, built over the archaeological site of a small ancient house—suggests that Mary would have been going about the daily domestic duties of a young woman of her time. Gabriel addressed Mary with a strange greeting from God, leaving her “confused and disturbed.” But he was quick to add, “Don’t be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1:29, 30).
When Joseph learned of his betrothed Mary’s sudden and inexplicable pregnancy, he was understandably and righteously troubled and decided that he could not go ahead with their marriage. But an angel appeared to him in a dream to reassure him. “‘Joseph, son of David,’ the angel said, ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’” (Matthew 1:20).
On the night Jesus was born, a group of shepherds were guarding their sheep in the fields outside the village of Bethlehem. We might imagine a small group of men sitting and talking quietly together, perhaps complaining about the influx of census-compelled visitors. The night would be dark, lit only by moon and stars, perhaps a small fire for some light and warmth.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:9, 10).
One of the repeated refrains of the story of the birth of Jesus is “Don’t be afraid.” It is hardly surprising. “Don’t be afraid” is most often an acknowledgment that there is a likelihood of fear. In each of these instances, the immediate circumstances are the most obvious reason for fear. The heavenly messenger, the unexpected pregnancy, the sudden interruption were alarming. “Don’t be afraid” was an important and necessary introduction.
But there seems to be a larger meaning in these comforting commands. As we have considered, the incarnation was not a project for the faint-hearted:
Terror surrounded the life of Jesus like great parentheses. At His birth, Herod pursued Him with slaughter, and in His crucifixion, He shared the fate of the condemned slaves and others of low esteem. But Jesus was not contained by the terror, for at His birth and at His resurrection, messengers from God proclaimed for all who would hear: “Do not be afraid.”
But there is a still larger understanding of the angels’ words. “Do not be afraid” is one of the Bible’s most common commands. Of course, it is a common greeting when an angel appears or God shows up in some kind of dramatic or unexpected way. But, much more than this, it is one of the key messages of the Bible. “Do not be afraid” acknowledges the real human experience of fear, the tangible and sometimes intangible nature of the threats that surround us in the world as we know it, and our frailty as human creatures. It recognises the existential crisis of death and how it works to undermine all that is good, worthwhile and true about our lives. It also reflects the broken relationships with which we live, which can threaten our peace, security and even our lives.
“Fear was the first barrier God would need to overcome in restoring our relationship with Him.”
“Do not be afraid” also reflects our broken relationship with God. In the Bible’s story of the human fall away from God, Adam’s first confession is that fear had replaced the community they had previously experienced with God: “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked” (Genesis 3:10). This fear was the first barrier God would need to overcome in restoring our relationship with Him. But at the same time, the evil at work in our world would continually work to entrench and grow the human fear of God.
With this background, it is hardly surprising that “Do not be afraid” would become one of the recurring themes in the life and teaching of Jesus. It was a necessary reassurance when the disciples were exposed to glimpses of Jesus’ divinity (see Matthew 17:1–8) and a catalyst for their choice to follow Him (see Luke 5:8–11). In Jesus teaching, it was also a practical and spiritual ingredient for living life with God: “So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
So the “Do not be afraids” in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus were laden with meaning, both practical and deeply spiritual. They introduced the people in the stories to the divine and recognised their humanity. They announced that God was about to do something new in the history of our world, which would be troubling, transformative and redemptive. It was almost a year after his startling conversation with the angel in the temple that Zechariah, old priest and delighted new father, could speak again. No longer fearful but “filled with the Holy Spirit,” he used his first words well in a bold song of prophecy and praise for what God was doing in the world:
Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. . . . We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live. . . . Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace (Luke 1:68–79).
And “awe fell upon the whole neighbourhood, and the news of what had happened spread throughout the Judean hills” (Luke 1:65).
This is an excerpt from Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth by Nathan Brown. Discover more about this book here.
1. Lee Griffith, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, Eerdmans Publishing, 2002, page 278.